The worst case scenario for the Afghan election

The worst case scenario for the Afghan election

By Christian Brose

August is always the worst month for surprises, which often take the form of wars: World War I, the Gulf War, and more recently, the Lebanon War and the Russia-Georgia War. For fear of jinxing a good thing, I shudder to say that we’re halfway through August, and so far so good. But there is that business of tomorrow’s election in Afghanistan. The worst case scenario for it may be improbable, but it’s not impossible. And it certainly could rise to the level of nasty "August crisis." So what might that look like?

One worst case outcome is the Iran scenario — a disputed election result, allegations of fraud, and a drawn-out political fight laced with street protests and sporadic violence. This could be set off by either a narrow Karzai win or a suspicious Karzai blow-out (Ahmadinejad style). One could imagine days, even weeks, of protests by the losing candidates’ supporters demanding a recount, or a revote if none is declared, ultimately leading to an unpopular Karzai dispatching the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces to do battle with his political opponents under the banner law and order.

This scenario is bad enough, but it could get even worse. What if the Iran scenario turns into what might be called the Samarra scenario? That is, a single, shocking blow to the political body that exacerbates already fraught ethnic and sectarian tensions, sparks a paroxysm of violence and revenge killings, pushes the state to the brink of failure or beyond it, and pitches Afghan society into full-scale civil war — similar to what Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra did to Iraq in early 2006, when the resulting Sunni-Shia violence nearly sent the country over the cliff?

Again, this scenario may be improbable, but it’s not impossible. Civil conflict between the major ethnic groups is nothing new in Afghanistan, and the post-2001 political order has delicately balanced these competing interests. But it has by no means resolved them. Nor has it created durable political institutions that could ensure the peaceful resolution of differences in the event of a major system meltdown. Afghanistan’s new institutions are still so weak and fragile that they would likely be overwhelmed if hit by a resurgent wave of civil unrest and ethnic violence, similar to what Afghanistan experienced in the 1990s or what peaked in Iraq in 2006. And considering the discontent with Karzai in Afghanistan, it’s not hard, with a little fatalistic imagination, to envision the whole thing going violently off the rails if there is a widespread perception of injustice and wrong-doing on the part of a weak and unpopular Pashtun leader.

In this scenario, the center would not hold, and Afghanistan’s warring groups would take their fight out of the halls of politics and into the streets and neighborhoods of their enemies. And heaven knows these factions still retain the weapons and warriors, not to mention plenty of old grievances to go around, that would make this an awfully bloody affair. The incentive for meddling neighbors to become even more meddlesome would be huge and irresistible — especially for Pakistan, but also for Iran and India. And all the while, U.S. and NATO forces would be standing in the middle of this raging civil conflict. Or perhaps worse, they would be perceived as not in the middle of it, but instead seen as foreign occupiers who are forcibly propping up an illegitimate Karzai government that is violently thwarting the will of the people. The Taliban would be licking their chops, but even that might be the least of our problems.

This is the kind of low-probability/high-impact event that governments need to ponder and plan for, and I hope someone in the Obama administration is doing just that. My hunch is they are, and this might help to explain why Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen recently summoned General McChrystal to Brussels and told him to take a few more weeks with his strategic assessment and not to include any additional troop requests when he does submit it. The last thing the administration would want is for its commanding general in Afghanistan to lay out new strategic recommendations for the war and to have even more new forces streaming into a situation that has turned overnight from countering an insurgency to containing a civil war — in which the current Afghan leadership is taking sides in the fight, if it hasn’t dissolved entirely. In short, the Samarra situation would render the entire U.S. policy in Afghanistan O.B.E: overtaken by events.

Will this scenario unfold? Probably not. Could it? Yes, and I hope we’re ready for even the most extreme possibilities. August has always been the meanest of months for unwelcome surprises, and this one’s not over yet.